Ethics in non-profit photography

A couple questions have come up recently about ethics issues when photographing overseas for non-profits. Does the photographer have to get the subject’s permission? Or even their name? Do the same rules apply as in photojournalism?

The rulings aren’t black and white. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve worked as a journalist and for non-profits overseas for several years. Here’s my preliminary take on it.

Check with local law about the rights of photo subjects, but there is probably none. So it’s unlikely you’ll get sued or break a law by taking people’s photos and publishing them without permission. But the idea that “I don’t need permission if I’m a non-profit” doesn’t hold water. Why would a non-profit give their photo subjects less respect than other media?

In journalism, we don’t have to get our subjects’ permission to use their photo. That’s because we are publishing their photo, so they fall under the category of pubic interest. However, journalists are required to run accurate IDs and caption information. If we misrepresent our subjects or alter them, we suffer consequences. When we approach a subject to get their ID, we announce ourselves as journalists and where the photos will run. When subjects give us their name, it is tacit approval to running their image. This also gives journalists a chance to learn more about the subject, and the subject a chance to voice objections.

This process would be a good minimal protocol for non-profits to adopt. They also need to think hard about “informed consent.” If  someone’s photo is going to be posted around the world on Web sites and brochures, especially to promote a certain cause or organization, shouldn’t the subject know about it and have an option as to whether they will participate?

What consideration would we give an American whose picture we’re taking? It’s important to give non-Westerners just as much dignity and care. Language barriers are no excuse.

Non-profits would do well to come up with a policy about the kinds of photos they accept. Will they run only those photos (or video) TAKEN by their people, or taken with names and model releases included, or just any random photos? The latter is the  most common and the most suspect. Without good caption information, how do the editors even know where the photo is from, what’s going on, and who it is? The core issue is respect for the subjects. Are you accurately representing them and/or the cause you are promoting?

Along the same lines, organizations should think about how they USE photos. I know organizations that have photos of sad nameless African children.  They use them as generic stock photos, almost as icons, not as real people. So those images might end up on a Web site about AIDS, implying that the kids in the photos have AIDS. In my opinion, that’s bad ethics, and very unfair to the photo subject.

The safest, highest road is to get model releases–the subject’s permission in writing. If the photographer or anyone in the process thinks these will ever be published in a book or some other format, then they should get model releases. When I was working on a long-term project in refugee camps, I went as far as to have model releases translated into Somali, and hired a translator for a day to explain them to the photo subjects. In that particular case I had invested a lot in a vulnerable topic, and I didn’t want misunderstandings later on.

It takes more work to be respectful and honest to our subjects and our viewers, but it’s the right thing to do.


About mcgillmedia

I take pictures and teach other people how to do it, too.
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